Sikhumbuzo Moyo, Senior Sports Reporter
THE International Olympic Committee (IOC) is on high alert following an outbreak of the deadly Zika virus in the Americas, which encompasses the 2016 Olympic Games hosts Brazil.
Brazil’s huge port city of Rio de Janeiro will host the biggest global sporting showcase in August where Zimbabwe is expected to send a team of 31 athletes that include the history-making national women’s soccer team, the Mighty Warriors, who became the first local football side to qualify for the Olympic Games.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) on Monday declared the Zika virus and its suspected complications in newborns as a public health emergency of international concern paving the way for mobilisation of more funding and manpower to fight the mosquito-borne pathogen which is spreading “explosively” through the Americas.
Reports indicate that the WHO declaration represents its highest level of alert and is only invoked in response to the direst threats.
The first time was in 2009 during the H1N1 influenza epidemic that is believed to have infected up to 200 million worldwide. The second time was in May 2014 when a paralysing form of polio re-emerged in Pakistan and Syria and the third in August 2014 with Ebola in West Africa.
Zika was first identified more than 50 years ago and has alarmed public health officials in recent months because of its possible association with thousands of suspected cases of brain damage in babies. The WHO has estimated that the virus will reach most of the hemisphere and infect up to 4 million people by the end of the year.
With Brazil hosting the Olympics, fears are mounting that the IOC could be forced to put the Games on hold if the spread of the virus escalates.
Responding to inquiries from Chronicle Sport on Wednesday, the IOC said it welcomed the action taken by the WHO in dealing with the issue. It was also working with their partners in Rio on measures to deal with pools of stagnant water around the Olympic venues.
“We welcome the action taken by the WHO to deal with this issue. We remain in close contact with them and are following their guidance.
“We are working with our partners in Rio on measures to deal with the pools of stagnant water around the Olympic venues where the mosquitoes breed, to minimise the risk of visitors coming into contact with them,” said the IOC media team in an emailed response.
The IOC said it remained hopeful that by the time the Games are held in August and September, the situation would have normalised due to the cooler and anti-mosquito climate in Brazil.
“It is also important to note that the Rio 2016 Games will take place during the winter months of August and September when the drier cooler climate significantly reduces the presence of mosquitoes and therefore the risk of infection,” the IOC said.
According to the latest figures on the epicentre of the outbreak, Brazil has 4,000 suspected cases of microcephaly, with 270 confirmed with evidence of an infection.
According to the WHO, the Zika virus is an emerging mosquito-borne virus that was first identified in Uganda in 1947 in rhesus monkeys through a monitoring network of sylvatic yellow fever.
It was subsequently identified in humans in 1952 in Uganda and Tanzania. Outbreaks of the Zika virus have been recorded in Africa, the Americas, Asia and the Pacific.
It is transmitted to people through the bite of an infected mosquito from the Aedes genus, mainly Aedes aegypti in tropical regions. This is the same mosquito that transmits dengue, chikungunya and yellow fever.